A growing number of United States citizens have been detained under Obama administration programs intended to detect illegal immigrants who are arrested by local police officers.
In a spate of recent cases across the country, American citizens have been confined in local jails after federal immigration agents, acting on flawed information from Department of Homeland Security databases, instructed the police to hold them for investigation and possible deportation.
Americans said their vehement protests that they were citizens went unheard by local police officers and jailers for days, with no communication with federal immigration agents to clarify the situation. Any case where an American is held, even briefly, for immigration investigation is a potential wrongful arrest because immigration agents lack legal authority to detain citizens.
“I told every officer I was in front of that I’m an American citizen, and they didn’t believe me,” said Antonio Montejano, who was arrested on a shoplifting charge last month and found himself held on an immigration order for two nights in a police station in Santa Monica, Calif., and two more nights in a teeming Los Angeles county jail cell, on suspicion that he was an illegal immigrant. Mr. Montejano was born in Los Angeles.
This year the immigration agency has been rapidly extending its leading deportation program, known as Secure Communities, with a goal of covering the whole country by 2013. Under that program, fingerprints of every person booked at local jails are checked against Department of Homeland Security immigration databases. If the check results in a match, federal immigration agents can issue detainers, asking local law enforcement authorities to hold a suspect for up to 48 hours.
Detentions of citizens are part of the widening impact on Americans, as well as on immigrants, of President Obama’s enforcement strategies, which have led to more than 1.1 million deportations since the beginning of his term, the highest numbers in six decades.
John Morton, the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the agency gave “immediate and close attention” to anyone who claimed to be a citizen.
“We don’t have the power to detain citizens,” Mr. Morton said in an interview on Tuesday. “We obviously take any allegation that someone is a citizen very seriously.”
Later this month, Mr. Morton said, the immigration agency will publish new forms for its detainers. The forms, in several languages, will require the police to notify suspects who are being held on federal immigration authority, he said. They will also provide a hot line where detainees can call the immigration agency directly.
Exact numbers of Americans erroneously held by immigration authorities are hard to come by, since they are not systematically recorded. In one study, 82 people who were held for deportation from 2006 to 2008 at two immigration detention centers in Arizona, for periods as long as a year, were freed after immigration judges determined that they were American citizens.
“Because of the scale of enforcement, the numbers of people who are interacting with Immigration and Customs Enforcement are just enormous right now,” said Jacqueline Stevens, the study’s author and a political science professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
Ms. Stevens has concluded that “a low but persistent” percentage of the nearly 400,000 people held for deportation each year are citizens. (...)